Cathy frowned as she waved a letter written on brown parchment around. The resulting air currents disturbed the fog swirling underneath the room's high ceiling. "The nerve! They are practically ordering you around! Who do they think they are?"
Ami looked up from the map lying on the marble table in front of her and backed away when the irate blonde thrust the message underneath her nose. "I have read it too, Cathy. Please sit down again."
"Hrrm." The swordswoman's chair scraped over the white-blue-tiled floor as she complied. Jered, sitting to her right, snatched the letter from the leaders of the cities' retributive army out of her fingers and had a look at it.
The weasel-featured man briefly skimmed its contents. "Their leaders would be the strongest, most vicious thugs of each respective city. They have more in common with gang leaders than with our nobles. A certain lack of diplomatic skill is to be expected." He finished scanning the letter. "Nevertheless, I think it's clear that they are not interested in cooperation."
At the head of the long, rectangular table, Ami nodded. Her other advisers seated along its length looked at her with curious expressions. "To paraphrase: if you want to be useful, repair the indicated portals and stay out of our way. Wemos belongs to us," she summarised for their benefit. "They do not mention a possible meeting to discuss our relative positions in any way."
"Unsurprising," Torian, representing the warlocks after his predecessor Erasmus died during the Nero debacle, said slowly. His spindly, ring-encrusted fingers moved slowly over the white-glowing crystal ball that illuminated his beard stubble from below. "They must be shaking in their boots at the thought of being within your illustrious presence, my Lady. Even their dark angel would not like his chances against someone who has defeated a horned reaper in single combat."
Ami acknowledged the flattery with an almost imperceptible nod. "In any case, I have thought about our options, and decided that Nurgil is correct. We must defeat Wemos before the allied cities can make their move."
The large bat hanging upside down from a brass bird perch flapped its wings to show its approval. Due to the pool hidden underneath the floor, Nurgil had to remain in one of his semi-living forms that was able to exist above the body of water. Marda shifted her weight forward in her seat, making her armour creak as she shot a dark look at the vampire. It was the only outright negative reaction to Ami's statement that the young Keeper could see, although there were a few sceptical looks. Given recent events, she was loathe to let even more forces she couldn't control onto the continent, but that wasn't the main reason why she had chosen to follow the vampire's advice instead of Marda's. The militia soldiers were alive, while her own remote-controlled forces were not, and many would die if they confronted Wemos on his own turf. If she could, she would rather avoid unnecessary bloodshed whenever possible. However, the strongest reason against working together with the coalition of Underworld cities was that they endangered her own goals. She needed Zarekos' temple intact if she wanted to learn its secrets. The power to protect her territory from enemy scrying alone would be invaluable, and anything else she found out on top would be a welcome bonus. Then, there was the missing vial of her blood she had to worry about.. She had no doubt that the city forces would at least pillage the building, if not outright tear it down if they got there first. It was something she simply couldn't afford to let happen.
Snyder craned his neck to see past Jadeite, who was sitting to his right, and said "Well, that is quite the problem statement. Do we have sufficient forces to succeed within the imposed time constraints? The number of ghosts within the structure is daunting, to say the least."
"I'm confident we can do it," Ami said, and a faint smile played around her lips. "I have recently regained the use of one of my old abilities." She stood up and raised her right hand. A shadow dripped from her fingers, expanded into a black bubble that landed on the table with a soft thump, and shed motes of darkness until only a small, somewhat familiar form remained. As the remaining darkness bled away, a mutter went through the room. Huge black eyes stared back at the surprised faces from underneath a candle-topped miner's helmet.
"You can make imps again?" Jered commented, leaning forward to take a closer look. "Hmm, there's something off about it."
With an angry squeak, the little creature turned to face him and waved its pick. Or, more precisely, her pick, if the two lumps underneath the blue overall were any indication.
"It's even uglier than the regular imps," Marda snarled. An instant later, she had to lean her head to the side as the imp's pick whistled through the air, nearly grazing the armoured troll's cheek. "Worse-tempered, too. Is there a specific reason you made it female?"
The imp blew a raspberry at the broad-nosed troll leader and hopped off the table to fetch her digging implement, stowed it away in her backpack, and raced off into one of the tunnels.
"It's an unintentional side effect," Ami explained. "The dark energy I use to fuel the imp creation seems to prefer some forms over others, and I am still experimenting with the right mixture. Too much regular magic, and the imp doesn't come alive. Too little, and the result dissipates into random effects. The current balance I found comes with little quirks, but is otherwise stable."
"Does this mean we will be seeing your ice golems again?" Jered asked with a lecherous grin. A clanging noise echoed through the room as Cathy's elbow slammed into his breastplate.
Ami nodded. "I already embedded the required spell matrix within the dungeon heart. However, due to its inability to work with mana directly, I am suffering from efficiency issues. Current calculations show that I won't be able to maintain more than twenty-five percent of the original number without exhausting myself rapidly."
"That's still better than nothing," Cathy said. Her expression suddenly brightened. "Hey, since you can bring the imps alive, what about the dungeon hearts?"
To the blonde's surprise, Ami paled. "That's a very bad idea. It would be like trying to get myself possessed by an imp spirit."
"All right then, forget I asked."
"Let's move on to planning the attack." Ami produced her computer. "Jadeite, the maps please?"
The dark general snapped his white-gloved fingers, and the lights overhead went out. A reproduction of the terrain surrounding Wemos' territory grew from the marble, glowing from within and illuminating the faces of the people seated around the table from below. In places, the illusionary surface was transparent, revealing a network of tunnels and chambers coloured in red underneath. The tendrils of aquamarine that denoted Mercury's claimed territory had not yet reached the enemy Keeper's zone of control, but it was clear to everyone watching the map that the skirmishing would start soon.
"Thank you. Marda, what is your assessment?"
The troll grunted and took almost a full minute to study the terrain features. "The problems we are facing are quite similar to the original invasion, except smaller in magnitude. Since Wemos sacked a city, we may additionally have to contend with enemy spells." She looked up at Mercury. "We must engage the enemy in narrow locations where he cannot bring his numerical superiority to bear. This battle will be decided underground."
"I agree with that assessment," Cathy chimed in. "Our reaperbots are much stronger than the ghosts and skeletons. The main problem will be the vampires."
"Of course, Wemos will probably instruct his imps and ghosts to dig wide, spacious halls to prevent just that," Jered pointed out.
"How are the gold reserves, my Lady? Can you clear such obstacles with your fearsome magic?" Torian asked, almost drooling at the thought of getting to watch mysterious and powerful spells in action.
"I advise against that," Marda interrupted sharply. "You will need your gold to construct water-filled obstacles to limit vampire mobility. As long as they are able to teleport around freely, your imps will be unable to work their way deeper into enemy territory."
"Noted," Ami said. A few blue markers in the shape of caricatured reaper bots appeared on the map and slid into position. "As you can see here, my plan is to..."
Tormented howls of utter agony, amplified by the concave walls of the underground tower, competed with the ceaseless wailing of the ghosts in Zarekos' temple. Zarekos, with his ghostly left hand buried within the back of Wemos' skull, directed a cold gaze at the line of forty-one vampires floating like blotches of dark ink above the milky glow from below. One of the spectres supporting the unfortunate vampiric Keeper forced its way into his gaping mouth, slid down his throat, and wrapped around his strained vocal chords. His screams died down as his neck bulged and swelled to grotesque proportions, allowing Zarekos to address his slaves without having to shout. His acidic mental voice reverberated through the brains of his minions. "For want of wisdom, wretched Wemos enraged the Underworld. If only he existed in more than one body a so that I might properly prolong his punishment!" The ghost's glare intensified as he snarled at his audience, while his red mantle oozed around him like a bleeding wound. "Your cooperation in this catastrophic endeavour he concocted is noted."
The assembled vampires gulped, shaking as they gazed up upon the macabre ruin that was their Keeper's twitching, undead body.
Unfortunately for Zarekos, the demands of the situation and his current disembodied state kept him from properly expressing what he thought of their conduct. Using Wemos as a hollowed-out hand puppet was not how he intended to spend the rest of eternity, so acquiring a new body was the first priority on his agenda. He already knew how to properly motivate his worthless spawn. "I shall forgive you for this failure - one of you! Only the first who finishes my following quest shall be spared my wrath! Fetch me a fertile female! A dangerous dragon damsel is what I desire, but they are in sadly short supply. An elegant elf is what I expect, a humble human the most modest maiden I shall accept."
"But Master, what about the army from the Underworld that is assembling?" one of the braver bloodsuckers dared ask.
"Some select soldiers should comply with my criteria," the self-styled emperor replied, misinterpreting the question on purpose. "That aside, it is of little concern to me." At the end of his arm, a pained gargle forced its way through Wemos' de-fanged gums as the faint red glow in the Keeper's eyes brightened. "Insolent imps intruding on my dark domain, however, call for callous and cruel corrective action. Begone! Slay the servants of the Keeper who boldly besieges this place of profane power!"
Ami's heart was beating rapidly as a final layer of rock and earth crumbled away under the picks of her imps, revealing a wall. A rust-red mural in the shape of a stylized demonic grimace leered at the little workers, illuminated by the small lanterns on their helmets. Further back in the narrow, arrow-straight tunnel, more of the imps fortified the walls and claimed the floor. Ami hadn't paid to extend her electric cables into these remote corridors that would soon be heavily contested, and so her siege tunnels were lit by the standard torches also found in other dungeons. The passages still managed to look somewhat brighter and less oppressive than other dungeons by virtue of their ivory-white and clean blue tones. While the imps worked, three reaper automatons landed behind them, each of them tall and wide enough to block the passage on its own.
"That was the last one. The automatons are in place, the imps stand ready, and the forward bunkers are constructed. Is everyone else ready, too?" Ami turned in place, taking in the determined nods of the warlocks sitting in front of their scrying screens, the salutes of the troll contingent standing in the back of the room, and Jadeite's eager smirk as he stood in front of the command chair with crossed arms. The faint hum of magical shields could be heard around the room, and the alarm wards shone with green light. Only one person stood out from the atmosphere of quiet confidence. "Snyder? Is something wrong? What are you so nervous about?"
"Ah, well," the redhead ducked his head at being singled out, "I am simply worrying about the terrible spell Keeper Nero deployed against us. The possibility that Wemos has knowledge of it too is extremely unpleasant to consider."
"Oh, that," Ami gave him a reassuring smile. "Don't worry. I had a long look at the recovered remains of Nero's spellbook, and Wemos' dungeon heart is definitely not close enough for that." She looked around. "Does anyone else have any last-minute concerns? No? Good. Begin!" The teenager in the black senshi uniform disappeared into a a miniature whirlwind of snowflakes, only to shimmer into existence hundreds of kilometres away. The complete darkness within one of her six forward bunkers was no impediment to her Keeper sight, but the bare interior of the shell of steel submerged within a small pool of water could not keep her interest. Since she was now close enough to the front line to force spells into enemy territory, she spread her arms and channelled energy through her dungeon heart. The little chamber lit up from the red corona that sprang into existence around her body as she prepared to unleash her first spell at Wemos' dungeon. Ironically, it was the same one that his former master had struck her iceberg with not long ago - one of the few ways to take down magically-reinforced dungeon walls. Ami didn't think her enemies could locate her within her own territory, but nevertheless teleported to the next bunker to repeat the process. Better safe than sorry.
The earth shook, and a long crack appeared in the demonic mural facing the waiting troops, splitting the decoration vertically in half. The rock was still vibrating when the first imps launched themselves at the weakened wall, hewing loose the thick, tight-fitting blocks. A few seconds later, the sounds of metal striking stone ceased when the obstacle collapsed, creating a jagged gap in the wall. Behind it, a corridor with blood-red tiling turned and twisted, very unlike the straight lines and orthogonal angles that Ami preferred. An imp squeaked when a reaperbot pushed her through the opening and followed with stomping footsteps. The metal monstrosity had to duck to pass through the hole and dislodged a few more blocks as it tried to squeeze through the gap. The one behind it, clearly piloted by an impatient goblin, helped it out with a kick to the back that sent it sprawling. Heedless of the loud crashing noises, the first imp was already performing a short sequence of dance steps as it trampled her Mistress' magic into the ground, superseding Wemos' claim and slowly extending Mercury's territory. A moment later, the tiny creature hesitated and looked up in dread as the air chilled around her. The torchlight itself seemed to lose its warmth as a quintet of transparent figures with half-rotted faces drifted into sight from around a bend, skeletal fingers reaching toward the intruders accompanied by the rattle of ghostly chains. The imp took one look at them, screamed, and clung to the leg of the nearest reaperbot, shaking in fright.
"Back you fools! Remain in formation! Stand side to side, block the tunnel, and keep advancing!" Cathy shouted into the automaton control chamber.
A mosaic made up of small scrying screens showed her the battle from the perspective of each individual pilot. Her strained expression softened slightly as the goblins followed her order and began driving back the tide of ghosts with each swing of their scythes. "All right, that's bette - cut those chains! Cut them now!" she screeched when a group of spectres entangled the foremost of the automatons with a mess of thrown chains. The restraints went taut as the undead started pulling in concert to drag their almost invulnerable opponent out of position. Sparks flew as blades scraped along unyielding chain link. "New plan: go get them!" Cathy ordered and watched with satisfaction as the gaggle of clanking automatons rushed forward, jumping over their fallen comrade to reach the busy ghosts. "Good, now get back into-"
A black blur appeared out of nowhere, and one of the reaperbots was suddenly spinning through the air like a top, missing an arm. For a moment, Cathy could see a short, slender figure standing in front of the middle reaperbot, whose chest was manifesting a row of deep dents as dainty fists smashed into it like sledgehammers. "Fuck! Mercury, vampire at breach three!"
The automaton reeling under the blows kicked at its attacker, but the black-robed vampiress flowed around the attack almost contemptuously - only for a chainmail-clad girl of ice, who hadn't been there a moment before, to jump on her back. The automaton's brutish hands closed on the clinched enemy's head before she could get loose and exerted pressure. An instant later, its hands slammed into each other in a mockery of a clap as the agile monster turned into a swarm of bats that was suddenly behind the reaperbot. The vampire returned to her true form while her clumsy opponent was still turning around, and swiped with her claws at its back - only to pull her hand back at the last moment as if burnt. Her confused frown turned into wide-eyed surprise when she noted the square trench filled with shallow water that the enemy Keeper must have built around her just now to trap her. Jumping high into the air, she turned into a fat bat, ready to cross the lethal barrier. Before she had flapped her wings twice, a white-glowing maul slammed into her like a tennis racket, carried her along, and pancaked her against the wall. Ash-like dust trickled down from the depression left in the wall when the owner of the weapon retracted his green arm. His outline blurring with the distorting effect of a speed-up spell, the troll retreated back into uncontested tunnels to let the expendable warriors deal with the enemy cannon fodder.
"Thanks, Mercury, that's one vampire down for good. We need more imps here to secure the area, there's an intersection coming up."
"I'll do what I can, but I'm busy here picking off enemy imps," Ami thought back. "Don't be afraid to concede some territory if it helps keep the losses down. We can take it back easier than we can replace the bots!"
Cathy spared a moment to survey the damage her troops had taken. One bot dented but functional, another missing an arm and not responding. She turned to the two warlocks assisting her and barked "Disconnect pilot pod twenty-three and attach it to one of the replacement bots. Pilot twenty-three, move to the transfer area as soon as your replacement is ready."
"Yep!" a tiny voice acknowledged from one of the capsules lowered into the floor. Cathy returned her full attention to the displays.
Ami felt like screaming. As soon as she had dealt with one problem, two more took its place, and the moment her attention waned, a tunnel would suddenly collapse, cracks would appear in her water basins, or a strike force of vampires would teleport in and rip a bunch of reaperbots to shreds before she could deploy trolls to deal with them. She wiped the sweat from her - or rather, Tiger's - brow. She was still advancing, slowly, but it was much harder and costlier than she had expected. Keeper Wemos had to be some sort of prodigy, able to predict and counter her moves almost before she had decided to make them. If the stakes had been lower, she would have been thrilled at the intellectual challenge, but as things stood, the situation was frightening. Not at all what she had expected from facing a novice Keeper like him. With a groan, she squashed an imp that was tunnelling toward one of her main tunnels, where it could have allowed him to drop his ghosts right into the back of her troops. She had the sinking feeling that the only thing that was keeping her ahead in the game was the fact that her opponent wasn't realising that she could stealthily claim terrain by sending rats through cracks that were too narrow for imps.
"Mercury, the reaper is pressing on ahead again! Normally not a problem, but there's a larger hall ahead!" Cathy transmitted mentally as she watched the back of the horned whirlwind of destruction through the eyes of the group of bots following his fiery hoofprints.
The demon was in rare form, stopping the incoming tide of ghosts like a particularly murderous and rabid cliff. His usual demented grin had long shifted from 'genuinely pleased' over 'orgasmic' into 'zen-like serenity'. Not even the occasional vampire or five could disturb his enjoyment. To the contrary! Hook the scythe into the left one to avoid being blown away by the gust off wind spells. Use momentum to run up the wall and bisect the surprised flying one. Burst straight through the explosion of magical power to tackle the third, bite his head off, then kick the one clawing at his back into the bunch of imitations following him. Slow down the last one and see into how many slices she could be hacked before she dissolved into black mush. And the best part was that they'd be back soon so he could kill them all over again! What, the straw-headed human was screeching at him again? What was it now?"
"...underground! Get out of there!"
Huh? At this point, Rabixtrel noticed the ground quake underneath his hooves - just in time for the floor to break off and tumble into the hollowed-out cavern below as enemy imps shattered the supports holding it up. He wasn't the only one caught in the cave-in, however, as many of his (incredibly inferior) metal copies followed him on the way down. He landed on his back with a surprised grunt and stared up through the billowing clouds of white dust. An imp was dangling at the edge of the pit. Even as he watched, the stone she was holding onto came lose and she rolled down the steep slope, squeaking all the way to the ground. Then, the room lit up as if the sun had risen when the enemy Keeper threw masses of pale-glowing ghosts into the chamber.
"Mercury, do something! They can't handle this situation on their own!" Cathy demanded upon seeing the forces arrayed against them. The dust cloud in the air looked perforated like a swiss cheese from all the transparent bodies within taking up space.
"On it," came the terse reply, and a large group of additional bots appeared on the claimed terrain in front of the cliff, followed by a watery hand that quickly lowered them down so they could defend their fallen allies until they had dug themselves out of the debris.
The blonde's eyebrows rose as a part of the claimed ground shimmered and flowed, the tiles parting to allow an elongated structure she had never seen before rise from the ground. A new building? It almost looked like...
Two imps huddled in the corner, forgotten as ghosts and vampires clashed with reaperbots and Rabixtrel. Despite the huge numerical disparity, the wraiths were not doing too well. The horned reaper even had the time to spare a glance at the odd little imps, if only because their supremely strange behaviour had caught his eyes. One of them had retrieved a piece of parchment from her backpack and was making little scratches on it as she watched the battle. A moment of observation later, he determined that the worker was counting kills, making a mark next to the number of each bot. Which meant the stupid doodle with two horns and the longest bar next to it was supposed to represent him. Wait a minute. The reaper snorted in anger as another oddity caught his eye.
The note-taking imp squealed in surprise when a shadow fell over her and a red-scaled hand as big as her head reached down and lifted her by her backpack. A moment later, she found herself face to teeth with the Reaper.
"WHO?" the enraged beast snarled, and a gust of searing hot breath blew the imp's helmet off her head. A claw-tipped digit was pointing at the score on the imp's chart that was higher than his own.
Ears pressed to her head, the imp lifted her short arm and pointed up, prompting the reaper's pupil-less white eyes to look in the same direction. They widened at the sight of a giant, frozen hand gripping the handle of a sword sized perfectly for its use. The giant bar of sharp metal rotated, spun, and whistled through the mass of ghosts, slaying anything in its path. Rabixtrel threw his head back and let out an ear-splitting roar. He tossed aside the imp and used the shoulders of a reaperbot as a springboard to launch himself into the thickest concentration of flying ghosts, his competitiveness roused.
"Master! I have brought what you require!" A short-haired blond vampire called happily as she appeared before Zarekos from a cloud of bats, with her arms slung around the waist of her struggling offering. She beamed at the powerful ghost with a hopeful expression on her face as she presented her prey.
took in the nice, smooth curves, the face with big, expressive eyes, and the slender legs. Ghostly eyebrows started twitching in disbelief at the sight. The ice golem, upon spotting him, ceased her struggles and pointed her hands at him. With ten loud pops, her sharpened fingers detached and darted toward his face and heart - and passed right through him. He hadn't even bothered to defend himself."Begone, brainless buffoon," he sighed as he used his Wemos-puppet's power to throw her through space and at Mercury's reaper. "Note to self: do not chose any more vampires candidates purely on looks."
The abduction of her ice golem allowed Ami to get her first look at the interior of Zarekos' temple through the eyes of her servant.
"Mercury! Are you all right?" Snyder rushed to her side when she doubled over and retched violently.
Thankfully, she avoided making a mess since she was in Tiger's body at the time, whose stomach was empty. Deathly pale and shivering, she looked up at the acolyte and let him support her until her legs stopped shaking. "I-I saw something horrible! Wemos - or at least a red-eyed vampire - he - he looks almost normal until the neck but- but then- he's turned inside out and taken apart! You can see his bones and they don't all fit together and his organs and veins are dangling outside there but spread out over several square meters of the statue and oh kami everything is pulsing and wobbling and he's still somehow alive!"
Snyder had to steady her as she dry-heaved once again at the mere memory. "That. Um. I don't know what to say. How can this be? Is he not our main enemy? Pull yourself together, please! Your troops need you!"
"I-" Ami choked, "I- thank you." She straightened and let go of his arm. "I think I can handle it now. Zarekos!"
Snyder looked up, rubbing his arm inconspicuously where Mercury's strong grip had left white discolourations. "Zarekos? What about him?"
"I saw him! He was a ghost, reaching into W-Wemos skull! How can this be?" She shuddered once again as she remembered Nurgil's words about his former Master attempting to ascend to godhood.
Jered interrupted her train of thought. "But Wemos is the Keeper, right? Sounds as if Zarekos is using him as a tool. It doesn't sound as if he's in any shape to move around much, so if you can remember his position, you can probably just blast him to cut off his control."
Ami suddenly smiled. "I can do even better!"
Zarekos tilted his head when two concentric magical circles appeared around the centre of the mess that was his suicidally stupid minion, counter-rotating slowly. He was, of course, familiar with the spell that produced such a pattern of blue flames. A long-range transportation spell, slow to cast, that would summon its target to the caster's location. Quite useless in combat, unless said target was unable to move, such as in this particular case. He could move Wemos around, of course, even though it would kill the vampire in his current state. Not a problem as such, but if he lost contact with the Keeper, he would not be able to use his powers. A possibly troublesome problem, since the iceberg bitch from across the ocean was a surprisingly resourceful opponent. For an amateur, anyway. If he had access to anywhere close to the amount of resources she had, he would have driven her back into the sea already, he was sure. Most vexing was the fact that he could not cast spells through the dungeon heart, even using Wemos as an interface. That would have made things so much easier on him. In deep concentration, he directed the defence of the dungeon for several minutes, reinforcing it with more ghosts from his temple. Hmm, yes. Soon. The transportation spell should go of in less than ten heartbeats. He lifted a finger as a signal, and one of the circling ghosts darted towards Wemos' cracked-open ribcage, grabbed the beating heart, and plucked it from its exposed perch in a shower of blood. Immediately, the separated organ and its owner dissolved into black sludge that disappeared. Zarekos grinned. As soon as the spell had gone off, he would retrieve the resurrected vampire from his coffin and resume his work. Any moment now...
A flash of red from the centre of the arcane circles distracted him. Eyes widening in shock, he stared at the figure that had teleported before him. "What?"
Wemos' face was a grimace of hatred and defiance as he lifted both fists in his sire's direction, middle fingers proudly erect. An instant later, the transportation spell went off and whisked him away.
"Noooooo!" Zarekos bellowed as his plans came crashing down around him, and he reached in vain toward the spot of empty air where his slave had just been. Suicide? Just to spite him?That... that... An inarticulate scream of range echoed through his temple as its walls started trembling, fading from his proud red colours into a neutral, bleached grey.
"This is Jadeite from the warlock boat. We managed to summon something that crumbled into dust in the sunshine as soon as it arrived. Did we get him?"
"We did!" Ami's cheerful mental voice replied. "The enemy dungeon heart's claims are broken, and the bots are racing toward it as fast as they can manage. The vampires seem to have fled, but the ghosts are still bothering us. They aren't posing much of a challenge without support or a Keeper dropping them behind our lines though."
True to Ami's prediction, driving the wrathful spectres back toward the threshold of the temple did not take very long. Once there, however, she was hesitant to send her troops in. She had a healthy respect for the dark gods' powers, if not for the deities themselves. Rabixtrel, however, had no such qualms. The demon was taking his order to exterminate all ghosts and skeletons on the island seriously, and hopped over the broken vault door without hesitation. Blinking, Ami constructed a new scabbard-room in front of the structure, froze her watery hand, and pulled a giant-sized sword from the stone sheath. Now ready to keep her rabid minion from getting overwhelmed, she sent the weapon in after him, then possessed an ice golem and followed with quiet, hesitant steps. With most of the ghosts gone from the temple already, she now had the opportunity to properly marvel at the splendour of the grandiose hall. Although there were no gems or precious metals used in the construction at all, every stone surface was polished and gleamed like mirrors. Heavy, open incense burners hung from delicate, bridge-like cross struts that steadied the rune-covered walls against the pressure exerted by the surrounding earth. The glow emanating from the ever-burning pieces of pottery, just like the arcs of the helical stairs running along the walls, was carefully arranged to draw all attention to the sky-scraper sized statue of Zarekos, which was the centrepiece of the temple. Sounds of battle drew Ami's eye to the third floor, where the reaper was chasing some ghosts into one of the side rooms branching from each floor. Most of the spectres were circling like flies in the open air though, well outside of his reach. Her gaze wandered further upwards along the statue, and she shuddered for a moment at the memory of what she had seen there earlier.
At its very top, the former ruler of the continent floated in the centre of the huge pentagram decorating the idol's bald forehead almost like a glowing third eye. With crossed arms and a bored expression, he hung motionless in mid-air, his mantle forming crimson wings around him. Ami wasted no time. Her oversized sword hurled through the air like a spear, propelled by her anger at his atrocities. Even from her distant point of view, she thought she could see his eyebrows rise as the blade bore down on him.
With a thunderous thud, the enormous weapon skewered the ghostly figure and buried itself in the pentagram behind it. Due to the monument's huge size, it looked as if a dagger was protruding from its forehead. Ami stared up at the metallic weapon that was still vibrating from the impact. She had gotten him, right?
"Interesting, but your futile and foolish efforts shall fail to find any frailties." Zarekos' telepathic voice brushed like scratchy fingers over her brain. There was no helping it, then. She'd have to get closer to properly fight him. A black flash, and her altered uniform replaced the ice golem's chainmail. Just in time, she remembered that trying to use the Dark Kingdom-derived floating spell would cause this body to shatter. Instead, she summoned a new hand, froze it, and stepped onto its palm so it could lift her up to the blade, and activated her visor on the way up.
Zarekos was waiting for her. She had struck him, she realised when she saw that the sword went straight through his midsection and should have cleaved him in half at the waist. Instead, he simply drifted upwards when he spotted her, until his feet were level with the blade's surface so that it looked as if he was standing on it.
"So I meet my murderer," Zarekos mocked, causing Ami to tense. She still remembered that he had been able to harm her before even while she was possessing a body. Her sensor's readout didn't do anything to ease her mind. Her first theory, that the body she saw was just a projection, was firmly contradicted by the amount of power her visor displayed emanating from the evil ghost's location. "Fortunately for me, but unfortunately for you, I have attained true immortality."
Ami put a lightning bolt through his brain.
"Now, your trouncing of my tools troubles me," Zarekos continued, as if he wasn't even noticing her systematically throwing every combat spell she knew at him, one after the other, with no more success than her first attempt. "Since I still required them. You put my precious plans into peril shortly before their culmination." All fake warmth disappeared from the vampire lord's voice as he narrowed his eyes. Warnings flashed across Ami's visor, and suddenly, she couldn't move. "Destruction is what you deserve, but necessity stays my hand. You will finish my work! Defiance is death. Serve me well, however, and I may even share some secrets." The pressure pinning Ami in place increased. "Make your choice."
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